On the Radio: Record blue-green algae blooms causing health concerns


(Bobby McKay / Flickr)
(Bobby McKay / Flickr)
August 24, 2015

This week’s On the Radio segment looks at public health concerns over the record number of blue-green algae blooms in Iowa this summer. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.

Transcript: Blue green algae causing health concerns

Toxins from dangerous algal blooms are appearing in record numbers across the state this summer.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The most recent report from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources advises Iowans to avoid two beaches that exceed healthy levels of a toxin produced by cyanobacteria, also known as blue green algae. This brings the total number of advisories this summer to 25, already ahead of the record of 24 set in 2013.

Toxic cyanobacteria blooms are an indirect effect of nutrient runoff and weather conditions aided by climate change. That’s according to CGRER’s Peter Thorne, head of Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Iowa:

“Higher surface temperatures and reduced mixing of hot surface water with deeper colder water, and increased nutrient loads, produce growth of toxic cyanobacteria which make the water unsuitable for consumption.”

Contact with the blooms can cause severe sickness and even death in humans and animals, and fish kills like one in Crystal Lake that claimed the lives of thousands of fish in July. Continued sunny and dry conditions will likely lead to more warnings in Iowa lakes before the end of the summer.

For more information about algal blooms, visit IowaEnvironmentalFocus.org. From the UI Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Qnu-7MPn8I

On the Radio: Turkey Watershed flood plan goes beyond flood walls


A stream near Elgin, Iowa, part of the Turkey River Watershed (KC McGinnis / CGRER)
A stream near Elgin, Iowa, part of the Turkey River Watershed (KC McGinnis / CGRER)
August 10, 2015

This week’s On the Radio segment looks at the Turkey River Watershed Management Authority’s innovative flood protection plan. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.

Transcript: Turkey Watershed Flood Plan

To prevent future flooding, one Iowa watershed group is going to the source.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The Turkey River Watershed Management Authority, in northeast Iowa, recently unveiled a 32 million dollar flood protection plan that goes beyond floodwalls and levees. Instead, the proposed plan looks to address one of the primary causes of flooding: poor soil infiltration of rainfall. That’s according to Lora Friest, of Northeast Iowa Resource Conservation and Development:

“We have damage to the communities, we have millions of dollars in road and bridge infrastructure. And what do we do? We put up higher sandbags, higher levees; we don’t actually address the problem.”

The plan applies the same techniques experts recommend to decrease nutrient runoff, including cover crops, buffer strips and reduced tillage. The plan cites Iowa Flood Center models that suggest a soil infiltration strategy could cut massive flooding by ten percent, saving watersheds millions over conventional flood plans.

For more information about the flood plan, visit IowaEnvironmentalFocus.org.

From the UI Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research, I’m Jerry Schnoor.

Wet conditions hamper fieldwork in May


Fall crops and standing water from rains in 2009 in Polk County (Carl Wycoff / Flickr)
Fall crops and standing water from rains in 2009 in Polk County (Carl Wycoff / Flickr)
KC McGinnis | June 2, 2015

Rain, cool temperatures and standing water halted Iowa farmers for parts of last month, slowing crop progress by limiting suitable days in the field.

The USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service reports that in the last week of May just 2.3 days were suitable for fieldwork across the state, with only 1.7 suitable days for southwest Iowa. Topsoil moisture was rated at above surplus for 50% of southwest and south central Iowa, and 22% across the state. That’s compared to last year, when only 7% of Iowa topsoil was at surplus moisture.

This excess moisture has made it difficult for farmers to get in their fields, leading to lags in soybean planting and alfalfa hay first cutting, which was only at about half the five-year average. Some operators reported standing water in their fields, and some fields will need to be replanted due to the excess water. The moisture also prevented spraying, and led to concerns over muddy feedlots.

While 92% of soybeans were planted by the end of May last year, this year’s numbers were at 50% or less for parts of the state, with southwest Iowa reaching only 37%.

Iowa faced a similar situation last year, with consistent heavy rains in June and July leading to less than three suitable field days for three consecutive weeks. “We just came through three of our most challenging years, as far as weather goes,” noted northeast Iowa farmer Travis Holthaus in a recent CGRER documentary. Heavy rains, flash flooding and challenging droughts continue to lead to increased unpredictability for Iowa farmers. These producers may need to prepare for decreased field days in the next week as well, with more storms predicted later this week.

Feeding the World symposium takes place tomorrow


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A special symposium on food sustainability and water quality will take place in Iowa City this week.

“Feeding the World: Challenges for Water Quality and Quantity,” a day-long series hosted by the UI Public Policy Center, will be held at Old Brick Church & Community Center on Thursday, April 9.

Agricultural practices, water conservation and climate change have strong impacts on food security in Iowa and around the world. The upcoming symposium will take a past-present-future approach to addressing these issues, starting with historical perspectives on agriculture and assessing Iowa’s food future based on current practice.

The symposium will feature more than a dozen experts and scholars in public health, engineering and conservation from around the state. It will open with a roundtable of University of Iowa researchers talking about water sustainability, followed by a keynote address by Des Moines Water Works CEO Bill Stowe. The symposium will then move to agricultural concerns, with panelists from the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, Drake University and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship addressing historical perspectives on agriculture and how present farming practices affect our water resources. The day will conclude with a panel looking at the future of food production in Iowa and a Q&A session.

Early registration for the event is closed, but guests may still register at the door. For more information, visit the Iowa Public Policy Center.

On the Radio: UI study finds floods increasing in severity


A flooded field during the flood of 2008 ( Joe Germuska / Flickr)
A flooded field during the flood of 2008 (Joe Germuska / Flickr)
April 6, 2015

This week’s On the Radio segment looks at a recent University of Iowa study which found that flooding events in the Midwest have increased in severity in the past half century compared to previous years. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.

A recent University of Iowa study has found that flooding events in the Midwest have increased in severity in the past half century compared to previous years.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus

The report was recently published in the journal Nature Climate Change by CGRER member Gabriele Villarini. It examined 774 stream sensors in fourteen states from North Dakota to West Virginia. The researchers found that 34 percent of the sensors detected an increase in flooding events between 1962 and 2013. Nine percent of the sensors showed a decrease in floods during that same period. The region that experienced the highest frequency of floods included Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, and North Dakota.

Serious floods have hit the Midwest repeatedly since 2008. FEMA data show that the nationwide flooding events caused more than $260 billion in damages between 1980 and 2013.

For more information about this study, visit IowaEnvironmentalResearch.org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Jerry Schnoor.

“Why should I care what happens downstream?” Why topsoil preservation matters


An example of healthy soil in Iowa (Natural Resources Conservation Service / Flickr)
An example of healthy soil in Iowa (Natural Resources Conservation Service / Flickr)
KC McGinnis | March 18, 2015

Starting tonight, Iowans will have their say on the proposed relaxing of topsoil preservation rules for newly constructed sites.

In hearings over the last year, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources has considered comments from home developers and homebuilders who wish to amend a current rule regarding topsoil conservation. While the current rule requires companies to maintain or replace at least 4 inches of topsoil on new construction sites, the industry is asking to be able to choose for themselves how much soil – if any – is to be replaced on such lots. Homeowners and conservationists have come out in defense of the current rule, which preserves soil health and prevents the headaches of flooding and runoff from land lacking in topsoil, while saving homeowners the added expense of adding the soil themselves.

At one of the initial hearings on the rule, however, a contractor is reported to have asked, “Why should I care what happens downstream?” For some, the benefits of topsoil preservation seem far off, and not worth the added $3,500-$6,000 in replacement costs per lot the industry estimates. However, all Iowans would feel the effects of relaxed soil conservation rules. Here are a few reasons topsoil matters:

  • Healthy topsoil is Iowa’s first and best defense against excessive flooding. When topsoil is removed from a lot, the land can’t hold nearly as much moisture. As a result, water from storms and snow melts simply runs off, causing increased flash flood concerns. During warm seasons, standing water on stripped land can also attract mosquitos and disease-carrying organisms.
  • In addition to moisture, land with healthy topsoil holds fertilizer better than land without it. This means that when storms come, landowners are at less risk for nutrient runoff, preventing them from incurring the added cost of applying additional fertilizers. This is also good for our rivers and streams, which are already inundated with excessive nitrates and phosphorus from nutrient runoff.
  • Healthy topsoil is an absolute necessity for growing grass, trees and gardens. Without it, homeowners will often have to haul in their own topsoil, adding unexpected costs to their home purchase which could have been folded into their mortgage in the first place (and probably at a much lower rate).
  • Topsoil protects Iowa’s water quality and reduces costs for water utilities. The Des Moines Water Works, which is suing three Iowa counties over nutrient runoff disputes, spent over half a million dollars in nutrient replacement this winter.

The Iowa DNR will hear comments regarding the proposed rule change at public hearings starting Wednesday, March 18, at the Cedar Rapids City Services Center. The DNR will also conduct hearings on March 25 in Davenport and March 27 in Des Moines. Iowans can give written comments by mail to Joe Griffin, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, 502 E. Ninth St., Des Moines, IA 50319-0034. They can also send comments by email to joe.griffin@dnr.iowa.gov .

 

CGRER documentary shows need for statewide flood sensor network


A still from a documentary on the development of a flood sensor network in Iowa produced by the UI Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research.
A still from a documentary on the development of a flood sensor network in Iowa produced by the UI Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research.
KC McGinnis | March 4, 2015

A new documentary produced by the University of Iowa Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research shows how one technology developed by Iowa scientists could help Iowans prepare for floods better than ever before.

The video (below) includes interviews with Iowa landowners, scientists and watershed authorities who are taking advantage of experimental flood sensors being installed in locations around northeast Iowa. The new technology, which has been under development since the 1990s, is groundbreaking in both its arrangement and scope, and has influenced similar networks across the country.

The sensors, which can be installed on farms or other land, record rainfall on the ground, rather than from radar, resulting in more accurate readings. Each sensor is actually a set of two sensors, which can help explain discrepancies in data better than single sensors. Data from these sensors is sent to the Iowa Flood Information System, an interactive website that’s free to the public, and is an important resource for landowners and municipalities during heavy rainstorms and other flood events.

Since rainfall can vary over small distances, the Iowa Flood Center is currently seeking funding to install new flood sensors in each of Iowa’s 99 counties. To see the history of the technology and to learn more, watch the video below.